5 Ways To Spice Up Your Personal Narrative Writing Unit For High School ELA

5 Ways To Spice Up Your Personal Narrative Writing Unit For High School ELA

Narrative writing is hands-down one of the most important things you can teach your secondary students. It's not just for 9th and 10th graders either, although it's important we practice the skills in those years. The personal narrative essay is also a key piece of the college admission process.

But even more important than that is this: the narrative form can help students process their experiences and make some sense of difficult circumstances. This is a skill that they might begin in high school but they can return to in many different ways throughout their lives if they begin seeing the value of it when they are teens. 

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Although we listen to and read stories from a young age and therefore, through this process, learn about the structure of narratives, it isn’t until we move through school, that we expand our knowledge of the structure and role of narrative writing. 

What Narrative Writing Is

Unlike more formal academic writing, narrative writing leads the writer and reader through a personal story. These personal stories record moments in history (personal or social), help process life events, teach us about others and ourselves, and, often, entertain. As a result, learning about and engaging in writing narratives can only help with life in and beyond the English classroom.

If you don't already have a narrative writing unit in your plan for the year, I highly encourage you to include it--no matter what grade level you teach. This is a skill that students need to come back to year after year after year. 

Keep reading for five strategies that can be used individually or, better yet, in conjunction with one another to teach about narrative writing.

pull out quote about how the narrative form can help students process difficult experiences

#1: Give Your Students Lots Of Cool Narratives To Read and Listen To

The first step in exploring narrative writing is to observe lots of narratives. I love giving students an entire class period (or more) to read and listen to narratives. Let them soak in the beauty and humor of a variety of stories told by diverse voices.

This is an opportunity to include narratives that incorporate the theory of Rudine Sims Bishop about windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, which involves  choosing powerful, personal, and relatable stories.

I love giving students a range of narratives to read AND listen to via podcast. It is through being exposed to a bunch of narratives that students will start to see common elements of narratives, and this can be incredibly inspiring. 

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What's more is that through reading the stories of others, students can see that even a seemingly mundane occurrence can have some real significance, which hopefully will translate into them realizing their experiences can actually make for good stories!

I've got a compilation of narratives you can use for this as well as a straightforward guide for students to consider the elements of narratives that you can check out here. 

Once students note key elements of structure and content, they can share their observations in small groups. As a final step, reconvene as a class to create a working definition of what narratives are. 

list of great narratives to use in a narrative writing unit

#2: Creative ways to brainstorm

Once students observe others’ narratives, a next step is to move into writing their own. But before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard students will need to generate ideas.

Brainstorming can be the most difficult part of the writing process (only rivaled perhaps by the editing process!). I actually find that some students groan with just the mention of the word "brainstorm," so I find that saying we are going to "generate ideas" can be more helpful.

For a low-stakes, fun way to generate ideas, give students a few hand-held pictures. You can get some awesome pictures from sites like pexels.com.

Provide students with a few images - printed or displayed digitally - and have them think about ways they connect with the image. Encourage students to write out any and all ideas that connect their experience either literally or symbolically. The goal is to get students thinking and recording ideas. While you might collect these for review or to help guide students in their writing I would encourage you not to grade this task. 

Check out this step-by-step mini lesson for the brainstorming process, including interesting images for your students! 

lots of pictures all placed together to show the brainstorm activity

#3 Have fun with sensory details 

Sensory details are key to creating a narrative that comes to life, and with all parts of the writing processes, looking at model texts can be hugely beneficial before students try the technique on their own. 

Have students go back to the example narratives they looked at when they were initially introduced to narratives. But now instead of considering the narrative as a whole, students should take a deeper dive and look at some of the sensory details the authors used to create a vivid picture in a particular scene. 

Students can use a simple graphic organizer like this one to jot down observations of how authors use sensory details to make a scene come alive.

Once students have observed how published authors do it, they can try applying those same concepts to their writing. Have them brainstorm sensory details they could add to a key scene in the story they've started to draft. 

Some questions they might consider:

  • What colors could they see around them?
  • What could they smell in the air?
  • What sounds could be heard? Think loud and quiet.
  • What could they taste? Emotions can even be tied to taste.
  • What could they touch in the moment? What did it feel like?

  • For students who are artistically inclined, they might want to sketch out the scene first and then turn it into words.

    Remind students that it’s often easy to ‘see’ the moment but adding in other sensory details will make their narrative fuller and more experiential.

    image of handout for sensory details lesson

    #4 Teach dialogue through partner activities

    An aspect of narrative writing that’s unlike more formal academic writing is the inclusion of dialogue. The use of dialogue can bring a piece to life. Who said what? How did they say it? This can set the scene as much as a description of a main setting. 

    One option is through role play using a modified RAFT (role, audience, format, topic) activity. The format would be dialogue but the other aspects can be decided by the class. Borrow from improv by having students suggest roles, an audience (who would be privy to the dialogue), and the topic. Then pair up students and have them ‘act’ out a dialogue together. This would mean that there are simultaneous dialogues happening in class; this often can take the pressure off the pair since everyone will be focusing on their own dialogue performance.

    Once a pair finishes their dialogue, have them meet up with a different pair of students and share their dialogues with each other. Get them to choose which of the two dialogues is best and then go join a group of four to share that ‘best’ dialogue with the next group. This can work until the whole class has joined together with two final dialogue performances for the whole class.

    #5 Teach grammar in conjunction with narrative writing 

    When you're in the middle of a writing unit is the best time to teach grammar because it is immediately applicable. 

    If you're doing a narrative unit near the beginning of the school year, this is a great time to incorporate a few grammar lessons on parts of speech like verbs, nouns, and well-placed adjectives. I am a firm believer in using mentor sentences to teach grammar, and then giving students a way to incorporate the grammar concept into their own writing immediately. 

    Their narratives will be sooooooo much stronger with action verbs instead of linking verbs and a few well-placed adjectives. If you need to see how to make teaching grammar work, grab my FREE unit on teaching parts of speech here. 

    I am more convinced than ever that writing and grammar must be integrated for students to really strengthen their writing muscles. To that end, I've put all my best narrative writing lessons together in bundle and added a few engaging grammar lessons for seamless integration. You can check it out here. 


    picture of handouts for narrative writing bundle


    Using any or all of these five strategies are sure to help your students better understand narrative writing and produce work that records their personal history. This process of recording their personal stories will provide an opportunity for students to learn about themselves and craft some amazing pieces of writing!


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